Today is International Women’s Day and we’re celebrating with mini mimosa pan di spagna (Italian sponge cakes)! Hooray!
The weather in Southern Tuscany has been absolutely disgusting. In the last ten days, we’ve had snow/constant thunderstorms, which is why my pan di spagna pictures are a little grey and moody and not their usual bright vibrant selves. Lack of light is a constant source of distress for me. I live in an apartment in the Old Town and it’s stacked living. We’e surrounded by palazzos (all of which are empty) that start casting a shadow over my kitchen at about 9am. Our bedroom is constantly dark. It’s akin to living in a giant concrete forest and I am absolutely hate it.
And this weather isn’t helping. I haven’t seen the sun in days and I definitely needed something to cheer me up. Cue mimosa pan di spagna or as we foreigners like to call them, tiny Italian sponge cakes!
They have nothing to do with the drink mimosa, but rather the bright yellow flowers you can see in my pictures. They’re called mimosas and they grow wild throughout Southern Tuscany.
They’re traditionally associated with women and today, all the female teachers at my school will get a big bunch of them. The first time I saw a mimosa, I almost started crying. They look exactly like wattle!! Australia’s national floral emblem!! A quick Google search proved they’re different plants from the same family, but that hasn’t stopped me from going a little overboard.
I am constantly stopping to pick a few branches from the giant sun yellow trees that are in bloom until the end of March. My car is full of stray buds and so is my house. I suffer from hay fever and mimosa is the worst, but I still have at least 5 vases in every room. My eyes have been watering for days, but I feel like I have a little piece of Australia everywhere I look!
Now back to these pan di spagna. They’re actually the traditional cake Italians bake to celebrate women and International Women’s Day in particular (they’re really into it over here). It’s usually just one big cake, but I decided to make mini ones because they look so cute and feel a tinsy bit more special, since everyone gets their own.
The original recipe is sponge cake, a divine whipped cream and creme patissiere mix that’s called crema diplomatica and apricot jam spiced with amaretto. On the top is a scattering of chopped up sponge cake, which is meant to mimic the fluffy buds of the mimosa flower!
So it all sounds a bit complicated, but it’s actually a really easy to recipe to make. The pan di spagna is my parents-in-laws’ tried and tested family recipe. They used to own a bakery in town and would churn out hundreds of pan di spagna every year around this time… usually covered in freshly whipped cream and those piped pink and blue roses that were so fashionable in the ’90s!!
If you’re a sponge cake novice, don’t worry. A perfect rise is not important. Once you start piling on the cream and the second layer of sponge and more cream and then the tiny bits of sacrificed, but still delicious, sponge cake crumbs, you’re going to end up with perfectly plump little cakes even if your sponge was a little on the flat side (happens to me all the time!)
The important thing is to use nice, fresh eggs because they’re what give the pan di spagna their signature yellow colour. In some Italian recipes, they use yellow food dye to make the cakes even more yellow and mimosa-like, but I wanted to keep things au natural.
As for the flavours in my mimi mimosa pan di spagna? They’re soft and girly and typically Italian: vanilla, apricot and almonds. The flavours that pop up again and again in Italian desserts and cakes. They pair really well together without being too sweet or overwhelming the sponge cake. Italians like their desserts like they like everything else – simple, but done in a way where you can still taste every individual element!
But I haven’t even gotten to the best part yet. These cakes are perfect to make ahead of time. In fact, you want to make them at least a day before serving.
When they come out of the oven, the sponge cakes are soft and delicious, but once you’ve smothered them in jam and crema diplomatica and stored them in the fridge for at least 4 hours, they become like little clouds – as. light. as. air.
It’s incredible. I don’t know much about science, maybe they absorb the moisture or something, but they are the softest, spongiest sponge cakes you have ever tasted.
So if you’re looking for an easy, plan-ahead, chuck-in-the-fridge dessert for Easter brunch that sort of screams Italian spring, then these mini mimosa pan di spagna kind of tick the boxes on all fronts.
You can even mix and match the jams and liquor you use. Blackberry jam and creme de mure would be amazing, so would Grand Marnier and mandarin marmalade or raspberry jam and Chambord.
MINI MIMOSA PAN DI SPAGNA (ITALIAN SPONGE CAKES)
for the pan di spagna sponges:
75g plain flour
1/2 cream of tartar
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla essence
for the creme patissiere:
1 cup milk
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup cornflour
1 teaspoon vanilla essence
200ml whipping cream
1/2 cup apricot jam
3 tablespoons amaretto (optional)
Preheat your oven to 200°C and line a large baking tray with baking paper.
Separate the eggs. Place your egg whites in the mixing bowl of an electric mixer and beat until soft peaks form. Add the cream of tartar and sugar, a tablespoon at a time, until you have glossy stiff meringue (8 minutes). Add the vanilla essence and the yolks, one at a time, beating well after each addition.
Meanwhile, sift your flour and cornflour 3 times. Don’t be tempted to skip this step. It’s what makes your sponge cakes super fluffy! Gently fold the flour mixture into your meringue with a metal spoon. Don’t over mix! Once the two are combined, stopped stirring.
Use two teaspoons to spoon rounds of the mixture onto your baking tray. Leave about a 5cm space between each cake as they will spread in the oven. Bake on the middle rack for 10 minutes (turning half way through).
You might need to bake the cakes in batches if your oven is tiny like mine! Leave to cool for 10 minutes, then carefully remove the cakes from the baking paper with a spatula.
To make the creme patissiere, heat the milk and vanilla in a small saucepan over a low heat until boiling.
In a small bowl, whisk together the egg yolks, cornflour and sugar. Whisk in about half a cup of the hot milk to dilute your egg mixture. Then pour the entire thing back into the saucepan and cook, stirring constantly, until thickened (about 5 minutes). Pour your custard into a bowl and cover the surface with plastic wrap to stop a skin forming. Leave to cool completely.
Whip your cream in an electric mixer to get soft peaks. Add the cooled custard and whip to aerate. And that’s your crema diplomatica done!
Finally combine the jam and amaretto, if using.
Now to make your cakes. Reserve a third of your sponge cakes to use as crumbs. I usually pick the ugliest, slightly burnt ones for this job! Cut them into tiny squares and set to one side.
Spoon a teaspoon of amaretto jam onto the base of half of your remaining sponge cakes. Add a tablespoon of crema diplomatica on top and sandwich. Cover with more crema diplomatica and scatter over your crumbs to cover.
Pop the cakes in the fridge to soften for at least 4 hours. Remove them from the fridge an hour before serving – they should be room temperature and dust with icing sugar.
Makes about 12 pan di spagna sponge sandwiches